April 23, 2017
"Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ." (Romans 5:1) To be justified before God is to have peace with God. To be justified means to be forgiven: God has removed your sins from you. It means to be in a good relationship with God. This is true peace.
When we talk about justification before God we speak of it in two ways. First, how it is achieved or won. And second, how it is received by sinners.
Jesus won justification for all mankind when he died on the cross for the sins of the whole world and rose for the justification of all people, as St. Paul makes clear: "...Jesus our Lord, who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification." (Romans 4:25) And St. John writes, "[Jesus Christ] is the propitiation for our sins, and not for our sins only but also for the sins of the whole world." (1 John 2:2) Our Lord makes clear how he won peace with God for us when he showed his disciples his pierced hands and side saying, "Peace be with you."
Jesus won peace for everyone. There is no sin that escapes the forgiving power of Jesus' blood. There is no sinner for whom Jesus did not die and rise. Yet, a sinner must receive this peace. Peace with God is received by faith in Christ. If you do not have faith in Christ then you do not have peace with God. So the great question is: How do you receive peace with God?
I used to work as a dishwasher and a prep-cook in a restaurant in East Grand Forks, MN. I used to have long discussions with a professed agnostic, who worked as a line cook. I remember once after telling him about the Gospel he asked me, "Well if God wants me to believe in him, why doesn't he come down and show himself here on earth?" As a teenager I was a bit taken back and said, "He did." But this isn't the way God chooses to reveal himself to us and create faith in our hearts. This is not the way Christ has chosen to bring peace to you. What did Jesus say to Thomas? "Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed."
God creates faith (and therefore gives you peace with him) through his word. The Evangelist writes, "But these things are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name." "Faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.", writes the Apostle Paul. Jesus is not going to appear to you with his nail pierced hands and perforated side. At least not this side of the Resurrection of the Dead. Rather, God creates faith in Jesus through his word.
It is not that God is trying to be difficult by forcing you to believe something based only on his word, while refusing to give you proof. Rather, God's Word is the only thing powerful enough to create saving faith. Abraham said to the rich man suffering in hell according to Jesus' story, "If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead." (Luke 16:31), meaning, that if someone does not listen to God's Word from the holy Scriptures neither will he believe if he sees a man rise from the dead. Of course this statement was prophetic, as the soldiers, who guarded Jesus' tomb accepted bribe money rather than believe in the resurrection, which they witnessed! (Matthew 28:11-15)
Jesus died and rose in order to gain peace with God for all people. He sent his Apostles to proclaim this word in order that you would believe it and yourself have peace with God. The Prophet Isaiah prophesied of Christ, "The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound." (Isaiah 61:1) When Christ breathed on his disciples, saying, "Receive the Holy Spirit.", he passed on to them the authority and obligation to proclaim the good news of peace with God won by Christ's suffering and death.
Jesus says, "If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld." This is called the Office of the Keys. The Church has the special authority to forgive and retain sins. Jesus has placed all sins under the authority of the Church and has given her the authority to open the gates of heaven! There is no sin so great that the Church cannot forgive it, because the authority does not come from the pastors or congregations, but from Christ Jesus himself!
This is the mission of the Church, to declare forgiveness and peace with God to all people, so that they will believe and be saved. Yet, Christ has also given to his Church the authority to withhold forgiveness. This is not authority to arbitrarily refuse to forgive sins of random people. Nor are there sins that are too great to be forgiven by Christ's suffering and death. Rather, the Church is given the duty of preaching both Law and Gospel.
To be forgiven, you must be a sinner. In other words, you must repent of your sins. Everyone is a sinner. Everyone deserves to go to hell. But not everyone hates their sins and wants forgiveness. The Law makes you aware of your sins. St. Paul wrote, "If it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, 'You shall not covet.' But sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness. For apart from the law, sin lies dead. " (Romans 7:7-8) When you are confronted with the Law you are confronted with your sins. When God's Law says, "You shall have no other gods before me", you become aware that you have worshiped your stuff instead of the true God. When the Law says, "You shall not commit adultery", you become aware of the sinful lust in your flesh. The Law needs to make you a sinner before you can be forgiven.
You cannot have saving faith without repenting of your sins. This is why it is necessary to preach God's Law. God's Law diagnoses the cancer of sin. The Gospel cures this disease by washing you in Jesus' blood. So why does Jesus give his Church the authority to withhold forgiveness? Jesus only gives his Church authority to withhold forgiveness from those who refuse to repent and believe in the Gospel. Jesus does this, so that those who refuse to repent would see how serious their sins are, so that they would repent, believe in the Gospel and be saved. The goal of preaching the law and of withholding forgiveness from those who refuse to repent is always for sinners to repent and believe in the Gospel and be saved.
The proclamation of the Gospel is always the goal. This is why Jesus went to the cross. This is what Jesus gave his Church when he returned from the grave: the Gospel, peace with God. This means that you, who have felt your sin well up inside you, who are aware of your transgressions and need for a Savior, you have very good news. The peace the pastor proclaims to you when he says, "Your sins are forgiven," is the same peace spoken by Jesus to his disciples. It is not weakened. It is just as potent, because it is the same peace won by Christ's suffering and death on the cross. Jesus gives you peace from God.
St. John writes, "And this is the victory that has overcome the world- our faith." Your faith overcomes the world, overcomes your sin, the devil, yes, even your sinful flesh. Your faith gives you peace with God. Not because your faith is a great work, but because your faith receives Jesus. If you have faith in the peace Jesus won for you, then you have the peace Jesus won for you.
Your faith doesn't depend on what you see or touch, like Thomas the skeptic. Your faith doesn't depend on great wisdom. Your faith depends on the word of Christ. That is why you go to church: to hear the words of everlasting life. Your faith devours these words, believes them, holds on to them. When forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you for Christ's sake, your faith grasps on to this peace from God. When Jesus offers you his body and blood to eat and drink in the Sacrament, your faith receives this peace from God. Every time you remember your Baptism, your faith confesses that you are born of God. Christ's Word and Sacraments, these are the means by which God has chosen to deliver to you the peace Christ won for you on the cross. God promises that his Word and Sacraments will do more for you to give you peace than even if you were to see the marks of the nails and of the spear.
Peace with God has been won for you by Christ. God is your friend. He is your Father. This reality can only be received through faith in Christ's word and Sacraments. May God grant you such faith unto life everlasting. Amen.